Ski industry supports cloud seeding but downplays climate change

  • Shannon Schad jumps at Superpark Mammoth, California.

    Scott Markewitz/Aurora Photos

About a decade ago, at the dawn of what now seems like an endless drought, some Colorado ski areas made a huge fuss about sponsoring a new effort to create moisture by seeding the region's clouds. They'd offer tens of thousands of dollars each to a contractor to shoot silver iodide into oncoming storms, generating more snow to lure more skiers.

I owned a scrappy little newspaper in Silverton at the time, and I wrote about what a waste of money it was. There was no proof that cloud seeding worked, for one thing, beyond a dubious anecdotal correlation between past attempts and a few good snow years. The cloud-seeders themselves admitted that, at best, they could only boost precipitation by 10 to 20 percent -- or an added inch or two during what would otherwise be a one-foot dump. That might have some impact across an entire watershed, but wouldn't turn a dusting into a knee-deep powder day.

But the joke, it turns out, was on me. Cloud seeding was a huge success, not in bolstering precipitation, but in generating media coverage. News outlets lapped up the story. One ski area PR guy claimed that it could make a six-inch storm out of a two-inch flurry -- a 300 percent increase -- which is far above any informed estimate. Media ran the quote without question. The cloud-seeding push actually achieved more as a relatively inexpensive ad campaign than it did as a sincere effort to coax snow from the clouds. If you cover it, they will come.

In this edition's feature story, Greg Hanscom finds that the ski industry is still acutely aware that the perception of snow is as important as the white stuff's existence: If the lowland skiers believe there's powder on the slopes, they'll get off their couches and get on the lifts. If they don't, they won't.

The industry's insistent self-promotion figures into its twisted approach to the climate change crisis. Since warming temperatures pose an existential threat to ski areas -- and entire ski towns -- the industry's leaders should be pushing for action. But that's generally not the case. Too many ski area CEOs apparently think that any recognition of the climate crisis would somehow degrade skiing's carefree image, leading potential customers to find other ways to spend their time and money. Instead of putting up a fight for their industry's long-term survival, some ski area CEOs even run ads mocking climate science, in hopes of short-term gain.

Still, all is not buried in the slush of cynicism: A few ski corporations are preaching action to their well-heeled, potentially influential choir. One of those is Aspen Skiing Co., which, not so coincidentally, has also long shunned cloud seeding. Why? Because, unlike, say, climate change, the science just doesn't back it up.

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